N.H. House panel endorses animal-cruelty legislation blasted by opponents as “ag-gag” bill
A state House committee yesterday endorsed an anti-animal-cruelty bill that is strongly opposed by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights groups.
The legislation requires anyone who sees livestock or poultry being abused to contact the local police within 48 hours, and let officers know whether they took any photographs or video of the abuse. Opponents have labeled it an “ag-gag” bill and say its true goal is to prevent evidence of animal abuse, such as undercover videos of factory farms, from becoming public.
But supporters said the bill would help stop animal abuse quickly when it is happening and help protect New Hampshire farmers from spurious public accusations when it isn’t.
“What we’re trying to do is to protect the small farmers in New Hampshire. . . . What we’re trying to do is to prevent what I think an attorney would refer to as ‘frivolous actions,’ by making people think before they accuse,” said Rep. Janice Gardner, a Dover Democrat.
The House Environment and Agriculture Committee voted yesterday, 11-6, to recommend the full House pass the bill, which has been rewritten since it was introduced at the beginning of the year.
It won’t go to the floor for a vote until January. If it passes, it will go to the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for a second look. If it passes the Democratic-controlled House a second time, it will then go to the Republican-controlled Senate.
In its latest form, the bill states that “anyone who witnesses another person performing acts of cruelty to livestock . . . or to poultry has a duty to report such cruelty to law enforcement with jurisdiction, within 48 hours of witnessing such cruelty.” The witness must also let the police know about any evidence they collected, including photographs and video recordings.
The original bill required the person to turn any recordings over to the police, while the new version simply requires him or her to inform the police about any evidence and retain unedited copies of any photos or videos for 60 days.
Under the bill, failure to report animal cruelty would carry a fine of $250 for the first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense.
Similar bills became law in Iowa, Missouri and Utah in 2012. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a similar bill in May, saying it could infringe on constitutional rights including freedom of the press.
Hudson Republican Rep. Bob Haefner, the New Hampshire bill’s prime sponsor, said the first priority is to stop animal abuse as quickly as possible.
But a second goal, he said, is “to make sure that our farmers here in New Hampshire are not accused of cruelty in the court of public opinion – that they’re never informed of it, law enforcement is never informed of it, there’s no official charges, just charging them in the court of public opinion. The intent is to stop that.”
But opponents on the Environment and Agriculture Committee said the bill focuses on farm animals to the exclusion of other animals, could prove difficult to enforce and may carry significant unintended consequences.
“Putting the onus on a citizen – any citizen – to determine what animal cruelty is and have to report it within 48 hours is, I think, pretty difficult to enforce,” said Rep. Christy Bartlett, a Concord Democrat.
Four Democrats and seven Republicans voted for the bill after more than an hour of debate. All six “no” votes came from Democrats.
Animal-rights groups came out against the bill in January, calling it disingenuous and un-American. The Humane Society of the United States said the latest version isn’t much of an improvement.
The bill “gives the illusion of animal protection,” but is “deliberately designed to obstruct the detection and documentation of farm animal abuse, not to ensure these crimes are reported to the proper authorities,” wrote Joanne Bourbeau, northeastern regional director for the Humane Society, in a letter to committee members this week.
The bill, Bourbeau wrote, “seeks to place obstacles in the path of whistleblowers who would expose the mistreatment of farm animals and food safety issues on agricultural facilities.”
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union also opposes the bill, with Executive Director Devon Chaffee writing in a letter that it would chill protected speech and “require every citizen (regardless of age) to become a police informant.”
The New Hampshire State Grange, on the other hand, supports the bill. President Jim Tetreault wrote in a letter to the committee that it would help protect “farmers who are being convicted in the court of public opinion, when they have done nothing wrong.”
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
email@example.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)